Feeling overwhelmed, or as though you don’t belong in a new job or new field of study is common to most people. But when those feelings don’t go away with time and experience, it could be a sign that imposter syndrome is creeping in, telling you that you’re out of place amongst others who you perceive as more qualified, or more suited to the task than you are.
When psychologists Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes found a pattern amongst “highly successful women” who felt like “imposters”, they published their 1978 research paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.
In the tech industry, it seems, imposter syndrome is alive and kicking. In 2018, tech networking site Blind conducted a survey, asking whether the participants suffered from imposter syndrome. Members working at leading companies including Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Expedia, responded, with the majority, (57.55 per cent) responding, that, yes, they did suffer from imposter syndrome.
So, if you’re feeling like you don’t fit in, how do you overcome imposter syndrome?
Beating Imposter Syndrome by Promoting Yourself
One of Melonie de Guzman’s key career revelations came to her relatively recently, when she realised that she had been, “Waiting for someone to anoint me a leader in the industry,” she said.
Advocating for yourself is important, but difficult in a system that has taught us to seek approval and advancement from others, de Guzman believes.
“We grew up our whole lives where we do the work, we get evaluated, and then we receive permission to move forward,” she says. “And for so long, I carried that mindset with me to my career.”
This led to de Guzman believing that she was passed over for promotion, or for new and exciting tasks because she had been evaluated and found lacking. Then, one day, it clicked that her company’s priorities were not necessarily the same as her own. There was every chance that the lack of career advancement was actually an affirmation of her competence – she was good at her role, and her company had no desire to tamper with what was working well for them.
This was when de Guzman realised that she would have to promote herself, in both senses of the word. If de Guzman wanted to pursue new opportunities, she would have to become her own advocate, and she would have to search for the roles she wanted to fill – giving herself the promotion, rather than waiting for someone else to do so.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome by Learning, Growing, and Facing the Facts
As an accomplished public speaker, de Guzman radiates confidence and competence. It might seem difficult for someone who is suffering from feelings of inadequacy to ever see themselves in such a role. But this is exactly how de Guzman started out herself.
Admiring the speakers at a networking event, de Guzman started to question why she wasn’t up there sharing the things that mattered to her. And this was where she came up with a key strategy for overcoming imposter syndrome.
“Gather data,” de Guzman suggests.
At the end of the day, you can combat feelings of inadequacy with facts.
“It’s about a shift in mindset,” de Guzman says. “These are our thoughts and feelings… and thoughts are not facts.”
Recognising your own achievements isn’t self-indulgent. It can be a valuable way to learn and to grow. It is important to give yourself credit for the work that you have done, and even to make a list of your accomplishments so that you can refer to concrete data when your impression of your own abilities may be unreliable.
The Blind survey sparked an interesting debate, with participants speculating that imposter syndrome was so common in the tech industry because it is constantly changing, necessitating that everyone learns as they go.
This constant need to learn and grow may be necessary, and even beneficial. But that doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable. It requires humility to accept when we don’t know something, and trying new things that we aren’t skilled at can often make us feel like failures.
When we do face these setbacks, de Guzman’s encouragement is not to see this as a failure but as an opportunity to learn and improve. Echoing Thomas Edison’s famous quote, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work,” de Guzman suggested, “You’re just gathering data on what works best”.
Overcoming Imposter Syndrome by Working Together
Understanding your own goals and gathering data on your own achievements will be important. But it’s also important not to see this as a solo journey. You can overcome your own imposter syndrome by working with others, and you will hopefully find yourself able to help them with the problems that they are facing as well.
Returning from a tech conference in 2019, de Guzman began to wonder how she could bring the community spirit and energy of that tech conference into her own organisation. This led to her co-founding Rogers Women in Technology and the Women in Technology Mentorship Program where women could network, learn from, and mentor each other.
You might be inspired to found a group like de Guzman did, but working with others could be as simple as finding and getting involved in the groups that already exist in your area or sector.
Don’t Try to Defeat Imposter Syndrome by Becoming Like Others
While having people to look up to is important, it’s also important not to try to be them. One reason for feeling like an imposter can be feeling like an outsider, but the tech industry needs diversity if it is to grow, thrive, and serve society by reflecting the wider society.
“When we talk about STEM or the tech industry - when it was built, we weren’t at the table,” de Guzman says. “Women weren’t at the table, minorities weren’t at the table.”
“The system is working as expected to benefit the old school way… because when they were building this fictional table, we weren’t in the blueprint.”
A recent report from the Australian Computer Society (ACS) found that women hold only 29 per cent of roles in the technology sector, and that this percentage is increasing at a glacial pace. Based on current trends, it will take 66 years for technology occupations to reach a female participation rate of just under 50 per cent.
An American research report produced jointly by Accenture and Girls Who Code, found that 50 per cent of women who take a tech role drop it by the age of 35.
Another American report from Working Mother Research Institute on corporate culture found that 50 per cent of multicultural women are thinking of leaving their companies within the next two years, due to feelings of marginalisation and disillusionment.
It’s easy to see why anyone in the minority might begin to feel like an imposter in the tech industry, but it’s important for people not to give up their identities in an effort to blend in. The Accenture and Girls Who Code report found that creating more inclusive workplaces and study environments was key to supporting gender diversity in tech. People thrive when there are visible role models of their gender, and they are given the support of a mentor.
Over the years, de Guzman tried to change herself to fit in, to reflect what she saw around her. This is one of the reasons she is now so passionate about building communities and mentorship circles - so that people can see others in the tech industry who are like them. So that they don’t feel like outsiders and imposters in an industry that hasn’t built a place for them.
Another way de Guzman tackles the non-inclusive blueprint is to take a different approach to leadership.
“So, servant leadership is… just a way that you approach leadership,” de Guzman explains. “And I love that it argues that the most effective leaders are the ones who are servants first, who set their team up for success, versus trying to attain more power. And I really believe that if people approach it in this way versus those sayings you hear of, ‘Every man for himself,’ or, ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world,’ like we’re all in competition – if we stop that, and go more to servant leadership, where I want you to succeed, and whatever I can do that’s within my wheelhouse to help you succeed, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Challenging an autocratic style of leadership may be difficult when it’s the model that we’re used to, but it is just one more way to help everyone in tech to grow and flourish.
Understand When It’s More Than Just Imposter Syndrome
Of course, it’s important to understand the difference between imposter syndrome and discriminatory workplace practices. Putting the onus on individuals to address their own insecurities can be unhelpful when those insecurities stem from a biased or toxic workplace culture.
At a 2020 Girls in Tech conference, then CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), Raquel Tamez, spoke about imposter syndrome and disparities in STEM.
“In recent years, it has become trendy to discuss how we (mainly women and people of colour) suffer from this imposter syndrome, an inability to internalise one’s accomplishments, with this persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud,” Tamez said.
“Imposter syndrome? No way. I don’t subscribe to the imposter syndrome, and neither should you.”
“Worries about not knowing enough, or being good enough are natural… You’ll never know everything, so instead, I invite you to identify the gap in your knowledge, and in your experience, and work towards closing it.”
Feelings of failure, of being an imposter, can come from many sources. When that’s external, it’s important to work with others to bring down those barriers, to lead with integrity, and to increase diversity so everyone can grow.
When feeling like a fraud is something that we have internalised, then it can still be helpful to lean on others for support, but it’s also important to take stock, and to understand when feelings are just feelings, and not facts.
And what was de Guzman’s final message for anyone looking to move forward in their career without imposter syndrome holding them back?
“The advice I would give myself? Don’t tie your success to your company. Don’t be afraid to move from job to job in order to get more experience, get a better pay cheque, but also, to increase your portfolio.”
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